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Learning the violin is NOT difficult!

April 9, 2010 at 12:18 AM


Well, it’s been a while since I have posted anything of a decent length or responded to posts but I am still here. The reason for my absence is that I finally decided to get serious about the Japanese language.   I’ve lived here for twenty years and although I studied a fair amount in my first few years,  other fields of education got in the way and I ended up just drifting along and getting by.  It isn’t really a decent way to participate fully in any society being functionally illiterate so I really got to work over the last few months.  During this ten day spring vacation I learnt 500 new written characters (kanji) on top of those I had already picked up in daily life. This is a heck of a lot!    Consider that most Japanese people only use about 1200 in their daily life and that of the more or less infinite number in existence the number designated by the National Language Commission of the Ministry of Education for everyday use (presumably this translates to`literacy`) is about 2000.  
I have to confess one of the reasons I have never learnt the kanji properly is that the Japanese have only one concept of teaching them: the relentless repetition of them over and over while very young and going into one’s teens.  Furthermore, there is not actually any systematic breakdown of components and intelligent ordering to facilitate learning by ensuring new kanji contain components of what is already learnt, a constant source of amazement to me.  Thus, when a foreigner tries to study kanji in Japan most of the teachers and materials use this mind-numbing, soul destroying approach.  Unfortunately, like mindless repetition on the violin, it simply doesn’t work for adults. I needed to be involved in the process, to learn the components one step at a time and reconstruct each kanji using imaginative images and stories.  That is how I learn best and fortunately I was familiar with a radical book/approach by a foreigner (Heisig) which works in just this way.  However, since the book only teaches individual kanji I had to search for what else I needed to get the whole experience.  (Imagine learning the violin only by studying Basics. One could be very good at individual techniques but never be able to play a line of music in any coherent sense).  So I do three other things. Firstly,  I go around shops memorizing words and sentences on the many signs and posters and immediately checking the meaning on a very high speed electronic dictionary.  Then I write the words down and hunt out dozens of sentences for each word from the dictionary and write them down in a notebook.  I reread these sentences aloud to my cat every night before I went to sleep. Second I listen intently to every conversation I hear in the school staffrooms I am in and immediately find the words in my high speed dictionary, writing them down in the same way. Finally, I read and read and read aloud everyday. (This is akin to what Flesch called the Performance time` of one’s practice).  Of course, when I stumble on a word I don’t know out comes the dictionary and five or six more sentences go in the book for nighttime reading and cat torture.    
By these means I experienced what I call the `tipping point` when one has built up sufficient grooves that seeing a completely unfamiliar kanji one automatically breaks it down into its component parts and in doing so not only automatically memorizes it but more often than not gets the general meaning.  Prior to this one has to go through basic stages of learning the components well. I used to call this `cutting the grooves` but although that analogy is easily understood it is so far removed from more modern research on learning I have dropped it.  Recent research suggests that the degree of learning is understood in terms of the degree of myelin build up around mental pathways. In the same way,   in violin playing, once the components are in place new music becomes a simple process of recognition and `Bob`s your uncle!` Unless someone chucks the Schoenberg at you for sight reading of course….
A number of things have interested me about the way I have taught myself.  It is generally found to be unacceptable, in a polite way, to most Japanese, especially teachers.  They see me writing essays in kanji and wonder where the repetitive writing practice went but I can’t show them the inside of my head.  Plus, they often say `wow, kanji are really difficult aren’t they ?` in a very sympathetic and concerned way. At this time they are remembering the struggle they went though in their youth to master their own written culture and I can sympathize with it but I disagree completely.   There is a fundamental difference between `difficult` and `takes time` which is simply not given enough thought.   Learning to read at an advanced level and write complex essays in Kanji was not difficult for me. Yes, It was very hard work and yes, it took time. No, it wasn`t difficult.
 I found my own way! A way in which I worked systematically and carefully and –had fun- all the way. Difficult didn`t actually enter the equation.   So engrossing has this become that during the vacation I sat down everyday in my favorite coffee shop, started working and came out of my study  zone after –five- hours -every time.- The time passed just like that and felt great. After those five hours there was no mental stamina left and the body wanted to stop.  Fair enough, but those five hours weren’t difficult in the sense of struggling with something I really didn`t understand.
Violin playing should be exactly the same. It is –not at all- difficult.  One learns in simple steps, sensibly chosen and explained by a competent teacher.  Little by little, the discrete tools we acquire cohere into an integrated technique at your given level.  This pool of ability expands globally like a puddle until one has it under control at which stage one can say the lifetime journey into masterworks independently of a teacher has truly begun. One is one’s own teacher. Never let anyone tell you it difficult.  It just takes a little time and a lot of thought…….



From Vivian Guo
Posted on April 9, 2010 at 3:50 PM

Hi Buri,


As always, nice to read your long posts, especially this one that I can chime in with ideas of some substance in my head!  Since kanji is simply Chinese characters, it will be helpful if you learn Chinese as opposed to learning Chinese characters as part of the Japanese language.  It is said that Chinese characters were coined, by and large, in six ways.  If one familiarizes oneself with these methods, one will have an easier way to learn it (at least for adults).  I was a Chinese major (specializing in classical Chinese) in college and grad school.  Although I have not much need to use Chinese in the US, I might still be of some help.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on April 9, 2010 at 7:47 PM


I'm always intrigued by the problem of what it means for something to be hard or difficult to learn to work with. A lot of things most people consider hard can be easy for me and vice versa. I think the root of difficulty of most stuff lies in some sort of mismatch of the reality and one’s assumption of it. I think anyone will find something is hard if at least one of the following conditions exists:

a) something that is beyond one’s limits (eg. anyone can walk but if one tries to walk 10km in less than an hour, he will find it very hard);

b) lack of proper mechanism for one to untangle a complex mess (e.g., it’ll be very hard for anyone who tries to solve complex and ambiguous organizational or interpersonal messes if she thinks she can do so by simply applying intuitive and commonsense efforts); and

c) to break out of self-imposed prisons of thought and action. This is in a way the hardest because the obstacle in learning is often unnoticed and sometimes even cherished as self-defining qualities.


I would say learning the violin will be extremely hard if anyone runs into one of the above three situations and many of us often do, especially if you are chiefly self-taught. In comparison, learning a foreign language is a lot easier, if you are in a community that gives you constant feedback and allows you to function within your limits.


Kanji or Chinese characters look intimidating, but the rules are in my opinion much clearer than English grammar.  I tutored Chinese to a number of western adult students, and what I’ve found is once they’ve acquired certain amount of rules (such as radicals for phonetic and semantic functions, number of ways they can be structured into a character, and the order of strokes when you write), adults learn very quickly without using the type of repetitions that the native speakers have to go through when they are little.


Carrying a little dictionary around wherever you are to get regular quick check can be very helpful, like having a 24/7 available tutor. I wish I can get that in learning to play the violin!  Also, whenever you have a chance, move the finger (or even toes if you like) to air-write a character and you if the character is out of tune, no one cares. I think the most important aspect of learning the Kenji is in the visual recognition though. The ability to correct a misplaced or miswritten character in a sentence is a good indication that one’s learned that character.



From sharelle taylor
Posted on April 10, 2010 at 4:42 AM

 Great blog Buri, and I do agree to a point that if you attend to details, systematically, then you can't help but learn.  The difference between violin and say, Japanese, is that the whole is so much easier to relate to the parts - we can hear a violin concerto, for example, and the stuff we learn in lessons chows us that the squarks that we are learning will eventually become that music.

But some languages - Japanese and chinese, and Hiungarian for that matter - well apart from knowing that they are a language, I have no idea of the bits that make up the whole.  I can't discriminate anything when I hear a native speaker of that language.  I listen to our ethnic broadcaster news but rely on the subtitles and pictures.  I can discern German nouns, verbs, and even understood much of a conversation once (when I was stuck in a cable car in the Austrian Alps, with 3 German skiers, rather a fond memory actually.. but I digress), despite only rudimentary knowledge of the language.  I can read French quite well, and have a few phrases and can converse if it goes slowly and halt-ing-ly, but cannot follow a conversation at all.

Can you follow a conversation between native Japanese speakers, even if you can't converse that well?  And how does a keyboard with Japanese characters work, if they don't use a 26 letter alphabet?

From Corwin Slack
Posted on April 10, 2010 at 5:51 PM

Japanese is entered on a computer in two ways: (1) using the phonetic syllabary collectively called kana or (2) using romanization. In both cases, as the user types (either kana or roman characters),  kanji proposals are made from a dictionary. The user can select appropriate characters from the proposal list. 

My challenge with Japanese came when I was much younger. I started learning the written language in Japan when I was in my late teens and continued it again through most of my thirties while I worked for a major petroleum company in Tokyo.  It was a brain-busting experience with flash cards and printed literature. Today I can trudge slowly through a newspaper with dictionary close at hand. I hadn't made the correlations Brivati-sensei has made with violin playing. Japanese is easier I think as 100 million plus Japanese people know how to read but some smaller fraction can play the violin. 

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on April 10, 2010 at 6:21 PM

I'm curious as to how the study of kanji has also made such a huge improvement in Mr. Brivati's fluency in typewritten English!  Not a typo in the whole blog!

From Don Roth
Posted on April 11, 2010 at 1:46 AM

I don't win many wars in the violin world.  My violin, for instance, will not allow me to play any piece really well for two days in a row.  So, I will take whatever satisfaction I can find.

This original blog contains a statement that is absolute "gold" and also happens to reflect my prejudices ..... "One is one's own teacher.  Never let anyone tell you it is difficult."  If only every student, young or old, knew what this means there would be a lot fewer posts on the forums !

How sweet it is.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on April 11, 2010 at 5:37 AM

But some of us are more motivated to keep doing something because, not in spite of, it is difficult, or at least it is supposed be difficult according to others. For one thing, you've already won half of the battle by just taking on something difficult: It shows the strengths in you to tackle it. It gives you opportunities to push your limits. If you don't do well, it's understandable because it's hard, but if you do do well, then the fruit is so much sweeter. See, it's a win-win situation if you are taking on something that is difficult. So, people, tell me that everything that I'm doing is hard, and if you can convince me, so much the better!

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 11, 2010 at 8:31 AM

Buri, this is a wonderful blog.  It tells so much about how to learn.  Your analogies concerning learning a language and learning how to play the violin are great.  Breaking unfamiliar things down into smaller pieces with which one is familiar is an effective way to start learning.  That is the analytic part of learning.  The synthetic part of learning -- putting all those bits of knowledge together in a way that makes sense -- can be more difficult, both in learning a language and in playing the violin.  I love your analogies.

I can confirm a lot of what Yixi said.  My experience mirrors hers.  I have taught English to Chinese immigrants, and they've all told me that Chinese is an easier language to learn than english because Chinese grammar is much simpler.  For example, in English, we have different tenses of verbs, some regular and some infuriatingly irregular.  In Chinese, there are no verb tenses.  Instead, the tense of the verb is discerned from the context of the sentence.  (Have I got that right, Yixi?)  In fact, English has one of the most complex grammars of any known language.  Is Japanese grammar relatively simple, as Chinese grammar is?

Now we can go back to the synthetic aspects of learning Japanese and learning the violin.  You wrote about finding sentences which contain the word you are learning.  This is a very important way to teach English, even to native speakers.  The synthetic aspects of playing the violin or learning music consist of rules which can be learned without torturing oneself or one's cat.  However, the great masters of writing or playing music both use and transcend these rules.

Dr. Suzuki also thought about the similarities between learning language and learning to play the violin.  According to a (supposedly) true story, Suzuki was playing as part of a string quartet, and suddenly he stopped playing.  When the other musicians asked him what what the problem was, he said, "I just realized something very important.  All Japanese children can speak Japanese."  He deduced that learning one's mother tongue and learning the violin were similar processes, involving many, many iterations of hearing and mimicking.  I think his method of teaching the violin is probably similar to the conventional method of teaching kanji.  

Buri, congratulations on writing a blog without typo's.  Can we look forward to more of the same from you? 

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on April 11, 2010 at 9:50 PM

Easy, if it was that wasy, we would all play as Sarah Chang.  Pergaps you mean accessible to most people who have little ear and normal skills???

Bravo for your Japanese learning!


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on April 12, 2010 at 1:20 AM


I didn`t actually say anywhere that it didn`t involve dedication and thought and those two things do not come easily in the same way that things should not be classified as difficult when it is not necessary. 

Actually we wouldn`t all play like Sara Chang.   If learning is done well the only person we play like is ourself at whatever level our divinely given talent allows us to achive whihc is as varibale as there are human beings under the sun.

Welcome back to the typos...



From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on April 12, 2010 at 2:15 AM

Yes I understand your view. I just wondered, at first,  if you were telling that "anyone can do it" in the way some pedagoges tell. I actually believe some persons are not musical. (just in IMHO)  My brother has actually big problems to play triangle and keep a beat or play these plastic soprano flutes they give ti kids at school (no jokes, it didn't fix itself in many years).  My grandfather was the same, not even able to clap hands on the good beat.  My mom is probably like this a little too.  BUT THEY ALL HAVE OTHER QUALITIES THAT MAKE THEM JUST AS VALUABLE!!!  Diversity is what makes a wonderful world.

Just that I have always buged with the "every one can do it" idea cause we are all mentally and physically designed differently to do different things. 

But I perhaps read it too fast! Of course, I agree that not everyone will play as Sarah Chang. I should have say "at that level" ; )

I agree very much with the idea that it is more accessible than we think and that often people "declare" it's too difficult unstead of putting the effort!  Just that doing an open string can be Everest mountain for people who are not "musical".

Good luck with your Japanese journey!




From Yixi Zhang
Posted on April 12, 2010 at 2:57 AM

Buri, just want to let you know that it warms my heart each time I see your typo and I'm not the only one on this site loves your typos. 

Pauline, you are absolutely right about Chinese language.

From Peter Kent
Posted on April 12, 2010 at 1:17 PM

Buri's return to typos harkens the old Heifetz story of during a recording session playback, his attention was called to an obvious playing error. Supposedly, Heifetz suggested, "Leave it....they'll love it"

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on April 12, 2010 at 8:10 PM
Peter, What an appropriate comment: Heifetz was describing the Japanese concept of "wabi": the beauty found in imperfection. And Buri has already demonstrated the twin concept of "sabi": the beauty found in the patina of age.
From david montague
Posted on April 14, 2010 at 6:30 PM

Your thoughts on language and music acquisition are inspiring and well put. I'm sure that rote/repetition has its place, but striving to perceive the Big Picture...purposefully immersing oneself in context and details..seeing both the forest and the trees...that's a golden path. Any signpost directing one to that Yellow Brick Road is worth following. Maybe easier said than done...

Very enjoyable back-story, too. That was one fine blog. Thank you for sharing and bravo!

But is learning to play the violin really "not difficult"? The blog's headline was too provocative for me to pass by. I'm just thankful that it wasn't a thinly disguised advertisement along the lines of "How to Play the Violin in 2 Weeks." Now that would have been truly provocative. And disappointing.

(Though apparently it's possible to learn to "play" the guitar or piano astonishingly rapidly, if one were to believe certain, curiously profit-motivated claims. But I have yet to encounter any entrepreneurs silly enough to hock 'instant' play-the-violin methods.) 

What does "difficult" mean? "Difficult" is relative. "Not difficult" for whom? For anyone? For anyone who is motivated and works hard?  Does playing the violin require ONLY motivation and hard work and nothing more? I hope not.

I've observed that learning to play the violin is not difficult to those who find it to be...not difficult.  But can be quite difficult to those who DO find it to be difficult. (Tautologies...pleasantly incontrovertible.) And, like all worthwhile artistic endeavors, it takes place upon an open-ended spectrum rather than it being an "all or nothing" affair. There's no Alpha or Omega about it.  Violin-family musicians are as entertainingly idiosyncratic as snowflakes (sometimes both in terms of individuality and flakiness.)

Heifetz said THAT? I love that. I bet he was right, too, in more ways than one. It's often noted that flaws may serve to enhance beauty. And such romantically artful notions are fine by me.

In the textile industry, certain kinds of imperfections are readily accepted. The term "slub" refers to a lumpy spot or unevenness in a strand of silk or a yarn. In the violin-family, "slubs" can be prevalent, especially upon excruciatingly close and honest scrutiny. And what violinist doesn't enjoy excruciatingly close and honest scrutiny?  As a violinist, I believe that slubs are not unlike pearls. This may be a self-indulgently comforting belief, but those can be the best kind.


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